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Word and Sign in Elizabethan Conflicts with the Devil

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 June 2017

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Gloriana, Britomart, Astraea, Belphoebe, the Sun in Splendor, England’s Moses, the new Deborah, the Phoenix—Elizabeth I possessed a generous wardrobe of public personas. Monarchy, chastity, divinity, and other intangibles played in the early modern mind as images, personifications, embodiments—the invisible rendered visible. As Clifford Geertz has observed, the Elizabethan imagination was “allegorical, Protestant, didactic, and pictorial; it lived on moral abstractions cast into emblems.” These emblems were culturally ubiquitous, appearing in books and broadsides, painted and carved portraits, architecture, tapestry, jewelry and clothing, armor and weapons, monumental funerary sculpture, wall and ceiling decoration. University students neglected Aristotle in favor of fashionable continental emblem books, and the taste for embellishing houses with emblems extended from the monarchy and aristocracy to the landed gentry and the rising middle class. Peter Daly stresses the psychological impact of emblems on the early modern mind when he observes that emblems were “as immediately and graphically present in this period as illustrated advertising is today.”

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Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1998

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1 Geertz, Clifford, “Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolism of Power,” in Rites of Power: Symbolism, Ritual and Politics Since the Middle Ages, Wilentz, Sean, ed. (Philadelphia, 1985), p. 19 Google Scholar.

2 Diehl, Huston, An Index of Icons in English Emblem Books 1500-1700 (Norman, Oklahoma, 1986), p. 3 Google Scholar.

3 Daly, Peter, The English Emblem and the Continental Tradition (New York, 1988), pp. 56 Google Scholar.

4 Bath, Michael, Speaking Pictures: English Emblem Books and Renaissance Culture (London, 1994), pp. 3233, 34, 39Google Scholar; Bacon and Willis quoted on p. 49.

5 Diehl, , An Index of Icons, p. 3 Google Scholar.

6 Bath, Speaking Pictures, p. 73; Walker quoted on p. 40; Willis quoted on p. 50.

7 Diehl, An Index of Icons, p. 3.

8 Bath, Speaking Pictures, p. 117.

9 Yates, Francis, The Art of Memory (London, 1966), p. 133 Google Scholar.

10 Ibid., p. 157.

11 Ibid., p. 231.

12 Ibid., p. 269.

13 Clark, Stuart, Thinking With Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1997), pp. 503, 507 Google Scholar.

14 Quoted in Yates, The Art of Memory, p. 270.

15 Quoted in R[offey], S[amuel] Maitland, Notes on the Contributions of the Rev. George Townsend…to the New Edition of Fox’s Martyrology (London, 1841), p. 116 Google Scholar.

16 Several recent scholarly works explore this ambivalence in detail. See, for instance, Aston, Margaret, England’s Iconoclasts, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1988), 1: 37993 Google Scholar; Collinson, Patrick, The Birthpangs of Protestant England: Religious and Cultural Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London, 1988); pp. 99119 Google Scholar; and Watt, Tessa, Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550-1640 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 13140 Google Scholar.

17 British Library, Harley MS 590, folios 6-63 (hereafter cited as H.); and Lansdowne MS 101, folios 165-75 (hereafter cited as L.). These manuscripts are extensively quoted by permission of the British Library, with pertinent folio numbers cited parenthetically within the text. Where the two manuscripts agree or differ only insignificantly, I quote H., occasionally using L. to correct or expand the quotation, as indicated by brackets. In cases where I have used significant excerpts from L., I cite it in addition to or instead of H. See Appendix A for more information about these manuscripts.

18 Maitland, Notes, pp. 114-44.

19 Deacon, John and Walker, John, A Summarie Answer to Al the Material Points in Any of Master Darel His Bookes (London, 1601), p. 140 Google Scholar.

20 Several scholars have attempted to translate early modem demon possession and obsession into terms more accessible to the modem mind, observing that the symptoms point variously to conditions that would now be called epilepsy, hysteria, autism, ergot poisoning, Tourette’s syndrome, sclerosis, chorea, paranoia, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, compulsion neurosis, pathological swallowing, mania, senile dementia, diabetic coma, and so on. Brigges’ particular symptoms seem to point to what would now be called clinical depression. But Erik Midelfort warns us against trying to interpret too exactly a religious phenomenon as a secular one: “My own suggestion is that we agree that these cases ought to be called: Demon Possession. That seems not only simpler than trying to translate the phenomenon into a modem, and even more problematic form of disease, but it also makes explicit the elements of sin, temptation, and self-punishment instead of hiding them under layers of clinical jargon.” See “Madness and the Problems of Psychological History in the Sixteenth Century,” Sixteenth Century Journal 12 (1981): 11. Michael MacDonald agrees that framing the phenomenon in modern diagnostic terms is perhaps misleading: “The correspondence between the words that denoted the varieties of insanity and the conditions they described was seldom exact, and it would be wrong to impose a terminology on contemporary ideas that lent them spurious consistency. The perils of anachronism seem to me to outweigh the virtues of verbal precision, especially as the best way to attain precision would be to resort to modem psychiatric jargon.” See Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1981), pp. xii-xiii.

21 Diehl, An Index of Icons, pp. 78-79.

22 See the glossary in Appendix B for the meaning of this word and other unusual words in the manuscripts.

23 Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1580 (New Haven, 1992), pp. 246, 251 Google Scholar.

24 Wooden, Warren W., The English Sermons of John Foxe (Delmar, NY, 1978), pp. viii ix Google Scholar. See also pp. vi-vii and p. xxi n. 9.

25 Foxe 53v-54r; reprinted in ibid.

26 Clark, Thinking With Demons, pp. 393, 402, 409-10.

27 Foxe 20v, 24v; reprinted in Wooden, English Sermons.

28 The traditional seven works of mercy that every Christian was obligated to perform were feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, relieving the prisoner, housing the stranger, and burying the dead. See Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 358.

29 Foxe 67r-68r; reprinted in Wooden, English Sermons.

30 Nyndge, Edward, A Booke Declaringe the Featfull Vexation of One Alexander Nyndge (London, 1578)Google Scholar. Reprinted as A True and Fearfull Vexation of Alexander Nyndge (London, 1615), A4v.

31 British Library, Harley MS 590, folio 69.

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